Reading the Bible in Lent

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Since Lent is a season for performing spiritual disciplines, it ia a good time for personal Bible study.  Regular reading of the Bible ought to be a part of the life of every Christian, but it is often neglected by people with very busy lives.

For people who are accustomed to reading a few verses daily as a part of a devotion, this is a time to do serious study of books of the Bible.

I recommend using several versions of the Bible that have notes which give brief explanations of the text.  The HarperCollins Study Bible in the New Revised Standard Version contains the best of modern Protestant scholarship.  The New Jerusalem Bible in the annotated version (be sure to get the annotated version)  has a distinctive English translation and notes based on modern Catholic scholarship.  The Orthodox Study Bible contains a new English translation of the Greek text of the Old Testament (the Septuagint used by the writers of the New Testament and the early church) and the New King James Version of the New Testament with colorful icons and Eastern Christian commentary.  By consulting all three, we have the whole of Christian tradition at our fingertips.  The Wesley Study Bible keeps the Methodist tradition of interpretation before us.

Systematic study of the Bible enables us to encounter more fully the Word of God.  The Bible is a part of the world's great literature, but there is nothing else in literature like it.  In the Bible we encounter a Word that comes from beyond ourselves in the words of the text.  Anyone who studies the Bible becomes aware that he or she has entered what Karl Barth called "a strange new world."  It is a world where the main actor and speaker is the living God.  Studying the Bible gives us the skill of discerning God's presence at work in the world.

Somewhat like Christ himself, the Bible is both human and divine.  It is written by and about human beings who lived in particular times and places.  Accordingly, Bible study requires effort in understanding the historical context of a text.  While the Bible needs to be read intelligently, it also needs to be read spiritually.  The purpose of studying the Bible is not to satisfy our curiousity about ancient times and places, but to hear the Word of God that came to God's people in the past.  This means that Bible study is accompanied by prayer that our hearts and minds may be illumined by the same Spirit who inspired the writers and who made the original events revelatory.

Bible reading destroys the religion of individual spiritual consumerism.  Persons who want a direct experience of God and simple prescriptions for how to live will be disappointed in the Bible.  According to the Bible, God's presence comes to us as a "mediated immediacy," to borrow a phrase from John Baillie.  Yes, God's presence is immediate to our hearts and minds and is perceptible by faith, but the meaning of this presence is mediated through the story of the people of God and God's Son Jesus Christ.  Study of the Bible helps us to understand the terms on which the living God chooses to communicate with us, to put aside immature religious notions,  and to grow in our knowlege of God by faith.  Unfortunately, a whole industry of Christian publishing that produces self-help books based upon so-called "Biblical principles" contributes to the mistaken view that the Bible is a handbook for how to live today.  No, the Bible cannot be used like this without completely misrepresenting it.  We will find direction for living by our encounter with the Bible, but mostly the direction we shall find is an illumination of the kind of character God can form in us, not prescriptions for every problem or need we feel.

If the Bible destroys the religion of individual spiritual consumerism, it builds ups personal participation in God's people and purposes in the world.  Since God speaks to us through the story of God's particular revelation to God's people in history, we learn that being in a relationship with God occurs by becoming a part of an on-going story and being a part of the church created to be the witness to God's purposes for all of creation.

If Bible study is a spiritual discipline of most of the members of a congregation, then that congregation's worship and witness will come alive.  People will expect much more of worship when they are engaging in serious Bible study.  They will not settle for superficial services that are not God-centered or shaped by listening to the Word of God proclaimed in sermon and enacted in sacrament.  Nor will they settle for being a congregation that just wants to be an in-grown social group, for they learn the story of Israel and the church in the Bible, and they know that the church today is the continuation of that same story of the people of God called to be God's witness in the world.

Every reformation and renewal of the church has come at least partly because of a fresh encounter with the Word of God in the Scriptures.  Since the church today is being shaken by changes between it and the culture, this is a moment when God's people need to listen to the Word of God.  The future belongs to the church willing to listen again to God's Word in the Bible.  There is no better time to begin than during Lent.

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